Pink Saris and Bake Sales: The High School NGO Trap

By Priya Rabindranath

Ad spaces in the TTC have recently been plastered with images of dejected brown and black girls captioned “Give child marriage the middle finger”.  These posters are part of a campaign organized by Plan International, one of numerous NGOs operating with local branches in Canada.

Plan has multiple subsidiary organizations, including Because I am a Girl, which has over forty chapters in Canada. Because I am a Girl recently launched a campaign to combat child marriage in developing countries such as Burkina Faso and Tanzania.

Organizations like WE (formerly known as Free the Children), Plan Canada, Oxfam and countless others promote philanthropy as the solution to crises affecting the global south, namely around poverty, access to food, clean water and education. Locally, they cater largely to student groups, framing themselves as an ideal outlet for the youth to effect the social change and progress they want to see in the world.

Outside of canvassing on the streets of downtown Toronto and advertising in our public transit systems, these NGOs have also established a presence in high schools. Students are able to get involved in local student-led chapters and fundraise for their respective causes through bake sales and the occasional documentary screening or guest lecture.  

In Scarborough, many high school students are aware of the disparities in living conditions between Canada and the Global South on a very personal level. Safiyya, a former student from SATEC at W.A. Porter reflects on her experience. “As an immigrant kid [from Pakistan], I see the way the poorer side of my family live.” Speaking of the demographic groups that NGOs claim to be aiding, Safiyya says, “they’re in a position that I could have easily been in. I sympathize and empathize with these people, because I have family that are going through the same thing.”  

With this in mind, Safiyya joined her high school’s local chapter of WE, then known as Me to We. However she quickly became disillusioned by having very little input in the direction of the fundraising. “We never learned or understood where our money was going.” Safiyya’s teacher decided for the chapter that the money raised would go towards Sierra Leone, a decision that did not change for the six years that Safiyya was involved. Had it been up to her, Safiyya would have liked to “contact the community and understand what they needed as opposed to what we thought they needed.” The sense of feeling “separated from the end results” of her work at WE eventually led to Safiyya leaving the organization.

In contrast to her experience at WE, Safiyya described the two years she spent volunteering with younger children in her own community. She felt she was able to “develop relationships” with the people she was working with, and could see how her work was directly impacting the children who genuinely wanted her mentorship. “I knew we weren’t just throwing money at a problem.”

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However, many young people continue looking to NGOs as a means to career building. For example, in October of 2016, Because I am a Girl brought a group of young women to Parliament Hill in Ottawa as part of the Girls Belong Here campaign, touting the event as a an opportunity for them to experience the lives of sitting Members of Parliament. In a video covering the event, participants can be seen holding signs proclaiming ‘I will be a Government Leader,’ ‘I will be an ambassador’, and ‘I believe in laws that protect me.’

It is unfortunate that students often feel compelled to volunteer with NGOs that falsely promise both social progress and career advancement. Ultimately, larger NGOs profit greatly from hours of free student labour. WE, for example, raised $43.1 million in revenues in 2015 alone while Because I am a Girl raised $203.3 million.

Aside from the fact that NGOs depend on exploiting their own volunteers and are often ineffectual in making real progress in the Global South, they can also distract students from low-income neighbourhoods from examining their own experiences. By presenting the third world as in need of saving from well-intentioned Westerners, NGOs imply that the West is benevolent and entirely unproblematic.

Racialized students, especially those from working class neighbourhoods, often grown up with an intimate knowledge of the issues NGOs claim to combat; poverty and lack of female empowerment exist right here too. By making spectacles out of developing countries, NGOs based in our high schools distract from the very real tyrannies of substandard living conditions, income insecurity, and racialized policing and surveillance that working class communities here experience on a daily basis.

Instead of providing students with a platform to organize according to their shared struggles in their immediate surroundings, NGOs effectively funnel them into programs that dilute their radical potential. Ultimately young people’s much-needed energy is being absorbed by philanthropic causes that are at best ultimately toothless, and at worst actively malignant.

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